They told me that this was the day I had been dreaming of since I was a child, but as I stepped into the airport, all I felt was a sense of dread. The air here had an impolite nip to it, and the palm trees hung low like green, otherworldly saucers. Even the English here seemed unfamiliar: rough, heavy, imposing.
I had packed whatever little I could salvage from the past fourteen years into the duffel bag around my shoulder; the rest I had to leave behind. Cards from friends, money from relatives, letters from teachers whom I would never see again.
A customs officer smiled as he stamped my passport.
“Welcome home,” he said.
My return to the United States seemed little more than a mockery of the time I had left it. Nine years earlier, I had left the Land of the Free for someplace less familiar, where mosquitoes bred furiously in foaming yellow lakes and stray dogs nosed through piles of trash.
I hated it.
I hated falling asleep to the squeal of rickshaws every night, and I hated each painful hour in the morning Bangalore traffic; where cows roamed the streets with unbridled abandon and beggars rapped their skeletal knuckles on my car window. I hated the absence of Autumn, how the sweet strawberries of my childhood were replaced by the roughness of papaya. I hated how my tongue struggled to adapt to the wobbly dialects there, I hated it all.
“Take us back to America!” I would yell at my parents. To me, America was a distant dream, one that tasted of M&Ms and clean streets and unlimited hot water in the shower. Even the simple memory of the expansive cereal aisles at Walmart filled me with immeasurable joy and wonder. I wanted to go back home.
Little did I know that I would soon fall in love. Little did I know that nine years later, I would miss the creak of the milkman’s bicycle on the uneven tarmac every morning, the twittering fruit vendors crowding into the narrow streets with their merchandise, and the snap of cricket ball against cricket bat. Little did I know that I would grow to miss the feeling of doughy parathas, fresh and steaming from the tandoor. I was so stubborn in my hatred for the ugly that I couldn’t confess my love for India until it was too late.
Now returning to America, my wish has been granted: clean streets, M&Ms, hot water. But something about it just doesn’t feel right.
Where are the people? Where is the gracious gardener, the cheerful chaiwalla, the loquacious laundromat? Where is the life, the bustling dirt paths full of schoolchildren and lawyers and wedding processions? And where am I, now the “Indian kid,” the obvious outsider, a stray thread in a seemingly perfect fabric?
Perhaps I’m split in half. I’m from the heavy monsoons of Bangalore, rich and swollen and abundant; yet I also revel in the golden, sun-dappled drought that swallows the hills of Santa Clara. I see myself in the sparkling explosions across the sky on the Fourth, and yet still relate to the bubbly gunpowder firecrackers during Diwali. I am the swift, organized freeways of San Francisco, and yet also the dramatic dirt roads of Allahabad, dragged and split into a thousand different directions.
Life takes me here, life takes me there. But I’m learning to find pieces of me everywhere.